Ali Dinçer *
Last week Turkish president and drone salesman of the year Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey could “part ways” with the EU. It was one of the most confusing breakup announcements of all time since most people didn’t even know that the two sides were dating.
Erdoğan’s remarks were a reaction to the European Parliament’s annual report on Turkey, which contained criticism of Turkey’s grim human rights record, including the arbitrary use of terrorism charges to silence dissidents, political control over the judiciary, mass incarceration, torture in police custody and in prisons, restrictions of free speech, refusal to comply with European Court of Human Rights judgments, abduction of Turkish citizens from outside Turkey, media censorship, online censorship, lack of access to a fair trial and a crackdowns on journalists, social media users, opposition politicians, academics, lawyers, trade unionists and human rights defenders. Or as Erdoğan calls it, Thursday.
It has almost become ritualistic for the EP to publish these reports every year and for Ankara to swiftly declare them “null and void.” In the past the publication was called the “progress report” because it was meant to document Turkey’s progress in terms of aligning its legislation with the EU’s legal standards as a candidate for membership. As of 2015 Brussels appropriately dropped the word “progress” and began calling it the “Turkey report.” More recently, they renamed it the “Türkiye report,” giving in to Erdoğan’s childish caprice.
The procedure to prepare the report is fairly inclusive and transparent. First, the parliament’s Turkey rapporteur releases a rough draft. Then, MEPs have about a month to submit amendment proposals. They can prepare these proposals on their own or based on feedback from lobbyists, civil society or bribe givers (Allegedly. see Qatargate). All the proposed amendments get published in an intermediate version. Ultimately, shadow rapporteurs representing party groups discuss the proposals and give the report its final shape.
Greece and Cyprus are member states, which means that MEPs from these countries get to obsessively flood the procedure with proposals focused on their regional grievances. This somewhat damages the report’s credibility since Cyprus is an issue where Brussels has absolutely no moral superiority. In 2004 a UN-brokered peace deal designed to put an end to the decades-long division on the island was approved by Turkish Cypriots and rejected by Greek Cypriots. The EU punished the Greek Cypriots’ intransigence by immediately welcoming them as a new member and rewarded the Turkish Cypriots’ reconciliatory attitude by continuing to keep them under economic embargo. Because in Brussels things don’t necessarily have to make any sense (see Manneken Pis).
The admission of Cyprus, a country technically at war and without territorial integrity, also became a roadblock to Turkey’s accession talks in the first decade of the century, taking hostage almost all negotiation chapters that matter, effectively destroying the reform appetite in Ankara and causing disillusionment in Turkey’s public opinion.
Ironically, as Turkey’s prospects for membership faded, so did the European leaders’ negative rhetoric towards Ankara. The anxiety of having to deal with an aspiring candidate gave way to the comfort of a fully transactional relationship based on horse trading as well as the occasional migratory blackmailing, verbal abuse and diplomatic humiliation.
For all intents and purposes, Turkey’s candidacy is dead, but no one wants to bother with the obituary and the funeral.
It’s not strange that Erdoğan is comfortable with the way things are. A closed door means he doesn’t have to explain to his people why they have to submit to what can only be described as a bureaucratic colonoscopy just to get a Schengen visa for a two-week vacation in Europe, even though his government’s calamitous economic performance and relentless attacks on rule of law obviously have a lot to do with it.
However, the European complacency with the state of affairs is unnatural and symptomatic of a wider underlying problem.
To be clear, at this point, no one in their right mind can suggest bringing Turkey’s membership prospects back on the table. The country is irreversibly stuck in a one-man tyranny unlikely to be dismantled as long as Erdoğan is alive, and accession talks couldn’t possibly have the transformative impact they had 20 years ago.
Plus, even under normal circumstances, admitting a middle-income country with a population of more than 80 million is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Yet, having a transaction-focused relationship doesn’t mean that the EU has to sit back and take abuse. The US and the UK are also frequently accused of cozying up to Erdoğan, but their indulgence comes from a much different place. Whereas London and Washington are only interested in Turkey as a potential counterweight to Russia’s regional influence and stand to lose very little in the event of post-Erdoğan political instability, Brussels is suffering from what can be described as strategic paralysis in the face of a neighbor representing vital interests.
Granted, since 2015 the EU has been at the receiving end of Erdoğan’s greatest instrument of blackmail: migrants. On the other hand, no other power in the world holds a card as lethal for Turkey’s economy as the EU’s customs union, which provides Turkey with full access to the entire European free trade area. (The EU accounts for nearly half of Turkey’s exports.)
In any case, Europe’s political lethargy exceeds the scope of EU-Turkey relations and reflects on all of its regional relations, such as its complete lack of initiative in Ukraine, where it has been basically bullied into falling in line with the hawkish Anglo-American stance. This general passivity has become the subject of widespread mockery on social media, particularly with one popular thematic account dedicated to poking fun at the fact that all the EU can do in the face of new developments is release statements expressing varying levels of concern.
What most people might not realize is that, while the EU does have a common currency, a common internal market, a common customs policy, a common external border and a common regulatory framework governing a broad range of areas from data privacy to fisheries, what it doesn’t have is a common foreign policy. Other than trade and energy issues where member states are able to unite their voices to step up their bargaining power, the EU’s foreign affairs agency is generally powerless, and each member state continues to pursue its own foreign policy independently.
Plus, the unanimity rule dictates that all 27 members have to agree on any significant binding decision, giving veto power to each and every member, including Malta, a mid-sized nightclub off the coast of Sicily.
About two years ago I had a conversation with a Belgian MEP who explained to me why the EU is finding it so difficult to properly counter the erosion of the rule of law and democracy in some of its member states. (Obviously, I’m not going to shame these countries by naming them. It’s Hungary and Poland.) She told me that while a nation is expected to align itself with a wide range of legal standards to become a member, once it’s in the union, it’s not subject to any quality control mechanisms to be able to maintain its membership. That’s because the founding fathers of the EU saw it unthinkable that a country could backtrack after achieving a pluralistic democracy with checks and balances.
That pretty much sums up the main structural problem with the EU: It was designed in the simpler world of the mid-20th century, among six founding nations with well-embedded traditions of liberal democracy and by a group of visionaries who were far too optimistic about the future to foresee the strategic complexities and ambiguities of the post-Cold War era.
Well, the Cold War is over. Gone are the days when Europeans had the luxury to bask in the free-of-charge security provided by the US without having to worry about their place in the world. Gone are the days when despots, thugs and warlords could be sealed behind concrete walls and fences of barbed wire.
Combined, the EU has a population of nearly half a billion, two-thirds of the US GDP, advanced military industries capable of producing any type of state-of-the-art weaponry and, thanks to the French arsenal, nuclear deterrence. What it lacks is the willpower (specifically, Franco-German willpower) and the organizational structure to profile itself as a force to be reckoned with.
From irregular migration to Russian aggression, none of Europe’s challenges is unmanageable. Yet, unless they summon the vision and courage to fundamentally restructure their union, Europeans are doomed to be phased out in the ruthless game of realpolitik by perpetually being tossed around among global powers, held to ransom by neighboring bullies like Erdoğan and Lukashenko, and inhibited by some of their own members.
*Ali Dinçer previously worked for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.